Featured Artist 


"My queer, Indian, Appalachian words"
Neema Avashia 

           

One of the joys of publishing a literary journal is seeing work that was first featured in Still: The Journal turn up in contributors’ books and anthologies and in other venues. Such is the case with Neema Avashia, our featured artist in this issue. We met Neema here in these pages before we ever met her in person, and two of the essays that are included in her new book of essays were first published here.

Another Appalachia: Coming Up Queer and Indian in a Mountain Place (West Virginia University Press, March 2022) is Neema Avashia’s nonfiction collection which counters the assumed narrative and culture of Appalachia in fresh and captivating prose. Neema was born and raised in southern West Virginia to South Asian parents who immigrated to the United States. The essays in Another Appalachia trace Neema’s experiences as a queer person of color growing up in the Kanawha Valley. “Much of my writing pertains to the unique experience of growing up as a member of a tight-knit Indian community in a state where we comprised less than half a percentage point of the overall population,” Neema says.

Neema’s collection of essays has been endorsed as “a bright and deeply empathetic portrait of a complicated place, a place that Neema Avashia allows to be multifaceted in the way it deserves.” In addition to writing, Neema is an experienced and politically active history and civics teacher in the Boston Public Schools. 

Among other things, we talked to Neema recently about education and about some of the craft choices she made in writing the compelling essays that make up Another Appalachia.


Still: The Journal:   What do you want readers to know about your collection of essays that comprise Another Appalachia: Coming Up Queer and Indian in a Mountain Place

Neema Avashia:   So many things. First, I want them to know that for me, a queer Indian woman, the daughter of immigrants, to be writing a book is a really heavy notion. For a Desi woman to write, and to publish, and to put truth on the page is pushing back against gender norms regarding whose voices matter, and whose voices do not, that have existed for multiple millenia. So this process feels risky and scary, but also really important. 

Secondly, I want them to know how hard I have tried to make sure that I hold the folks who show up in these essays with empathy, how important it has been to me to implicate myself seven times over for every one time that I’ve asked a question, or interrogated a choice, of someone else. And lastly, I guess I want them to know that this book is a kind of love letter to place, and to people. Not blind love, or rose-colored love, but rather, bell hooks’ definition of love: “When we choose to love we choose to move against fear–against alienation and separation. The choice to love is the choice to connect–to find ourselves in the other.” My hope is that in reading this book, in exploring the questions that it asks and attempts to answer, folks will find greater insight into their own relationships, their own identities, and thus, be brought closer together.  
  

Still:   We heard your reading for the West Virginia University Center for the Humanities recently, and you talked about how your immigrant parents encouraged you to practice “accommodation without assimilation” while you were growing up in West Virginia. Can you talk about that for our readers? 

Neema:   The best way for me to describe this is to explain what dinner looked like in my house growing up. We ate the same thing for dinner every night–a Gujarati meal known as daal (lentils), bhath (rice), shaak (vegetables), and rotli (a kind of flatbread). The type of lentil and the vegetable varied, but the composition of the plate was always generally the same. But the longer we lived in West Virginia, the more what counted as shaak started to evolve. Sometimes it might have been fried apples. Sometimes it was stewed rhubarb. Sometimes it was fried green tomatoes, but they were made with mustard seeds and coconut and chickpea flour. Sometimes collard greens subbed in where colocasia leaves would have been more traditional. Appalachian cuisine found its way onto our plates, but in ways that still fit within the composition of the existing meal. 

I think this is effectively also what my parents taught me about how to navigate identity and culture growing up. They taught me Gujarati, their first language. They raised me steeped in the traditions of the Hindu faith, particularly those around non-violence and vegetarianism. They made sure I had deep connections with other folks from our ethnicity–that I saw myself in the world around me. But they also encouraged me to build relationships outside my immediate community–my neighbors and classmates–and to build understanding of Appalachian culture, and to make space for the ways in which those relationships and that culture could enhance and deepen my own identity. I might be the only Indian person in the world who grew up playing
Appalachian folk music on my guitar, and I am that way because my parents saw Appalachian culture, and Appalachian people, as enriching, instead of something to be wary of. 

And…now I’m hungry. :) 


Still:   Tell us a little about how you came to writing essays about your identity and community, and can you talk about how you managed to put a book together while teaching full time in the Boston public school system? 

Neema:   I’d be lying if I didn’t say that Hillbilly Elegy, and my deep anger about that book, wasn’t a big impetus for writing my own book. I read a book that was purportedly about the place where I grew up, and the people I grew up with, and I found both the people and the place as Vance rendered them to be virtually unrecognizable. And in some ways, I think it made me realize that if I wanted there to be stories about the very particular corner of West Virginia where I grew up–the chemicals part, and the Indian immigrant part, and the queer part, and the way all those things went together–then I needed to stop stewing and start writing. There aren’t many of us who grew up at those intersections, and I realized that if one of us didn’t articulate the story, it wasn’t ever going to be articulated. 

Once I came to that realization, it almost felt like I couldn’t stop myself from writing. I would sneak out of bed early on Saturday mornings to write before my partner Laura woke up. I kept running notes on my phone of bullet points for essays, and then stayed up late at night turning those bullet points into narratives. I knew that I needed structure and community to write, so I would sign up for writing classes that ran way too late for my 5:30 a.m. wake-ups because they forced me to write to deadlines, and to share my work with a community of writers and get feedback on it. I went to places like the Kenyon Writers Workshop and the Appalachian Writers Workshop to see how my words landed in spaces closer to the place where I grew up. Sometimes I look back and I don’t understand how I was able to be so productive (and I wonder/worry about whether I’ll ever be that productive again!), but I think that the need to tell a different kind of Appalachian story was a kind of catalyst that just kept pushing me forward. 


Still:   So, a craft question: Your collection starts with an essay written in second person, a tricky point of view to pull off successfully. How did “Directions to a Vanishing Place” evolve? 

Neema:   Driving was such a big part of growing up. Things were far away from each other. There wasn’t a whole lot to do in terms of entertainment. So driving was a lot more than just a means for getting from place to place. It was a way in which I built relationships with people, and with the place where I grew up. David’s truck (featured in “Wine-Warmth,” which you all gave its home!), Mr. Bradford’s Jeep, the Schreck’s giant blue van, Amanda McNeel’s hatchback Tercel that we used to fit nine people into for summer morning rides to basketball practice. Those vehicles are as much a part of evoking place for me as homes or geographical locations are. 

When I started to write the essays in this collection, it felt like one of the first things I needed to do was to put readers in relationship with the place I was writing about, and in some ways, it felt like the only way to do that was to take them there. I wanted to put them in my car and drive them down the road and point out the landmarks and situate them, so that as they read the rest of the stories, they read them on solid footing, knowing the place I was talking about as well as I could possibly show it to them. So…directions. Directions became the way to show them, and the form for directions is always the second person. It is a tricky place to start, but I also think that starting there gave me permission to experiment with form again at different points in the collection, with an essay that is structured like a spice catalog, with a list essay, with multiple collage essays. By using second person right at the outset, I feel like I’m letting the reader know that this isn’t going to be a traditional ride or read. 



I’d be lying if I didn’t say that Hillbilly Elegy, and my deep anger about that book, wasn’t a big impetus for writing my own book. I read a book that was purportedly about the place where I grew up, and the people I grew up with, and I found both the people and the place as Vance rendered them to be virtually unrecognizable. 



Still:   
In one of your newsletters, you mentioned an issue that seems important to you, both as a teacher and writer: that how we see or do not see ourselves in books we read in school impacts our identity formation. Could you elaborate? 

Neema:   I didn’t read a single Appalachian writer in my K-12 education in Kanawha County Schools. I checked out Cynthia Rylant books from the library. My neighbor made me read Crum by Lee Maynard. But there was no point in my formal education where I was taught that the work of Appalachian writers had weight, was worthy of study, mattered. The same was true for reading writers of color. I was not assigned a text by a single Black or Brown writer during my K-12 education. I chose to do my senior term paper on Maya Angelou, and read her books as a result, but that was my decision, not my teachers. 

This means that I was fully 18 years old, a freshman in college, before I encountered an author of color and their work as worthy of academic study. And I was even older–in my 20s, before I read Jayne Anne Phillips and Chuck Kinder and Denise Giardina, and in my late 30s before I encountered Frank X Walker and Ann Pancake and Silas House and Crystal Wilkinson. 

And all of this meant that when it came to my own words–my queer, Indian, Appalachian words–it took me a very, very long time to believe that they had any weight. That they had value. That they mattered to anyone other than me. In fact, I still struggle with that sense of imposter syndrome right now. I’m fairly convinced that I’m not going to sell a single book to a person that is not a friend or family member. And while part of me knows that this isn’t true–that my words do have weight, that the stories I’m telling are important–I also can’t help but wonder if this sense of imposterhood would be lessened had I encountered more writers like me during my education. 

Young people need to see their lives, their stories, reflected in what they read and learn in school. They don’t only need those stories, but to receive an education in which they have access to none of those stories is, in fact, a kind of miseducation. We all deserve to see ourselves mirrored in our learning. We all deserve to know that our stories, and our words, have weight. 



Still:   We think one of the hallmarks of Another Appalachia is your use of questions throughout. Nearly every essay is based on interrogations you’ve posed to yourself. Can you say why this technique works for you as an essayist? And how do those questions help the reader? 

Neema:   Way back when I was in college, I remember a professor telling us that the word “essay” came from French and meant something to the effect of “to attempt” or to “try”. That said, I don’t think that I consciously was thinking about that idea when I started writing these essays. I do think that I had a lot of questions that I was trying to work through, and that writing felt like a way of working through them. Why, for instance, has shame been such a driving force for governing relationships and behavior in my family? Or what does it look like to grieve loss when the rituals one was raised with don’t resonate anymore? Or how do we reconcile our deep love of people with the fact that the beliefs they now espouse are profoundly harmful to us? I think for me, beginning with a question is a way to reflect on my life experiences and my relationships, and to consider how they might help me in coming closer to an answer to my question. 

And because I am a teacher and spend so much of my life with young people, I am very aware of how important it is for us as adults to model for young people what it means to grapple with our identities, to grapple with the hard questions, and to not shy away from, or suppress, the parts of ourselves that ultimately may give us the most meaning. So my hope is that by being transparent with my own questions, I am making space for readers to both see how I grapple, and to feel comfortable in asking their own questions. 


Still:   Tell us what you’ve got planned regarding the official release of Another Appalachia. And beyond this book, what are you currently reading and writing? 

Neema:   Starting in March [2022], many readings! In Boston, in Pittsburgh, in New York, DC, Morgantown and Charleston and, most excitingly, in Nelsonville, Ohio with Marianne Worthington and Doug Van Gundy on May 19. I’m pretty committed to only reading in places where I know folks and am excited to see their faces in the audience and have a meal with them afterwards, though, so no cross-country tours for me.

In terms of reading, I finished Drowned Town by Jayne Moore Waldrop and The Girl Singer by Marianne Worthington recently. Over winter break, I have been burning through Anthony Veasna So’s short story collection, Afterparties, Elizabeth Strout’s new book, Oh, William!, and am now working on Louise Erdrich’s new novel, The Sentence

And when it comes to writing, I’ve started working on a second essay collection, tentatively titled The Book of Broken Rules. Each essay in the collection takes up one of the “rules” communicated to me by family or culture or society and explores the implications of being the kind of person who is just perpetually breaking rules. I’m excited to see where it takes me once book publicity settles down a bit!



Read our review of Another Appalachia: Coming Up Queer and Indian in a Mountain Place
Reviewed by Laura Dennis



Read: The Deep Connection of West Virginia’s Indian Community: Neema Avashia on Childhood in the Kanawha Valley in Lit Hub.

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